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Stories From Afield • Updated Thu, Jun 1, 2023

Art in the Outdoors: Michael Paderewski

Not many folks understand outdoor art like Michael Paderewski, owner of The Sportsman’s Gallery. Born and raised in Savannah, Georgia, Michael did some schooling stints in urban areas, but his head was always in the outdoors. “I grew up hunting with my family, and was very passionate about fishing too. In boarding school, my roommate taught me to fly fish and tie flies, and I actually began guiding trout in Colorado during summers in college. I guided a couple years after that and ran a fly shop for a bit as well.”

Aiden Lassell Ripley's "Quail country" c/o The Sportsman's Gallery

Aiden Lassell Ripley's "Quail country" c/o The Sportsman's Gallery

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Michael’s appreciation for art dates back to his college years, when he studied art history. “I distinctly remember sitting in front of Winslow Homer’s The Fog Warning,” he recounts of an iconic 1885 scene of a weathered halibut fisherman in a rowboat, laden with fish, battling the New England swell as he struggles toward a distant mothership cloaked in fog. “I saw it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston while writing papers. That was one of the first pieces I remember really responding to, and Homer to me was one of the original, authentic sporting enthusiasts.”

Sporting art has a long, rich history, and Winslow Homer is widely recognized as one of the forefathers of the sporting art genre. From his introduction to Homer, Michael saw his appreciation for and interest in the different styles and subtleties of sporting art quickly grow. “Guiding out in Colorado segued into a winter job at an art gallery out there,” he says, recalling his introduction to the art business and the process of sourcing good art. “I always thought to myself — I can do this well enough where I think I can combine my passions to meet a certain demand. I wanted to predominantly focus on sporting and wildlife subjects and we've remained true to that over the past 25 years — although we've definitely broadened our offerings quite a bit. We try to offer something for all walks of sporting enthusiasts — that includes different subjects and different budgets. Now we represent a range of talent from up-and-coming, decorative artists to those that are the finest in their field, as well as deceased artists who were their predecessors: Ogden Pleissner, Aiden Lassell Ripley, Arthur Tait, Edmund Osthaus, and Percival Rosseau. It spans a lot of generations.”

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Ogden Pleissner's "Angling on a river"

Michael soon expanded his business from its original home in Atlanta, Georgia, to Beaver Creek, Colorado; Charleston, South Carolina; and Nashville, Tennessee. Diversifying location proved a valuable business strategy, as each gallery curates its works to best meet the demands of local patrons. “Beaver Creek has a very diverse clientele from all over the country and all over the world, so we try to have a little bit of everything there. But we obviously handle a lot of work focusing on Western big game, Western fly fishing scenes — things of that nature. Texas hunting scenes are also very popular because we have so many Texans come out to that area. But we also have many southerners from Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. These folks often relate to scenes of quail hunting in the pines versus the scrub brush of South Texas. So diversity is really dictated by the clientele that's coming through the door.”

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Maynard Reece's "Texas bound"

An additional focus at Michael’s Charleston gallery is the specialty niche of early 20th-century Charleston Renaissance art. “That gallery houses a lot more on southern pine quail hunting, white-tailed deer, and flats fishing. But Charleston Renaissance art is an even more specialty niche that we’ve focused on over the last ten years,” Michael explains. “Between World War I and World War II, there was a group of artists who were both local to the Charleston lowcountry area and visiting from up North. Their period works focus predominantly on Southern and lowcountry scenes. Think old Southern sharecropper cabins, beautiful live oak stands, other southern landscapes, and architectural depictions of downtown Charleston.” The Charleston Renaissance period seems aptly named, both stylistically and ideologically. These works capture the high-contrast sublimity and romanticism of their Italian Renaissance counterparts, while their subject matter speaks to an important era of rebirth in the Southern art scene.

On the sporting side, Michael’s favorite pieces are illustrations from the 1930s through the mid 1970s. “These works are fascinating because they influenced The Great Generation,” explains Michael. “Many of these pieces romanticized a certain lifestyle — owning a couple of gun dogs and pursuing a ‘gentleman’s sport.’ They influenced the aspirational nature of that lifestyle for so many folks back then.” For those interested in the history and evolution of sporting practices, some of these early works depict unique traditions that might raise some eyebrows amongst modern hunters and anglers. “There are some wonderful scenes of turkey drives, which are now outlawed after they devastated the entire turkey population of South Georgia,” Michael explains. “These hunts were run with beaters and dogs, much like a European driven pheasant hunt, where gunners were literally pass-shooting turkeys as they flew over. For me, it's interesting to see how people respond to those types of things. Some people are really averse to that type of outdated sport, but to me, these are really unique historical examples in sporting history which also paved the way for early conservation efforts.”

It’s clear that Michael’s own outdoor background positions him well to understand the significance and value of the art he handles, as well as the demands of his clientele. “In my mind, authenticity defines great sporting art,” says Michael, “and sporting enthusiasts know it and can immediately identify it. If you’ve done a lot of quail hunting, you understand there is a certain way that things typically play out between dogs and hunters, and other things just don’t happen. The best artists understand all the details. For example, if you don’t understand fly fishing, you might paint a casting scene with a tailing loop, or maybe a line form that is physically impossible to achieve with a fly rod.” Authenticity is certainly important to the trained eyes of many hunters and anglers in the market for new pieces. This is not to say that photorealism defines great art, as many more abstract outdoor artists capture the emotions of color, light, and movement that even photos cannot accomplish. “The power of sporting art is connecting people with times afield,” notes Michael. “We always half-joke that we’re selling memories, not paintings. People almost immediately gravitate to scenes they relate to. When it comes to matching a prospective buyer with a piece, it’s often a matter of blending personal interests with medium, size, and budget.” Admittedly, some people’s sporting interests are extremely specific, but this presents a fun and challenging aspect of Michael’s job. “I love bird-dogging super unique works. They're often rare and harder to find, but if you tell me what you like, I’ll do my best to find it.”

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Mark Sussino's "Sharing the wealth"

Thinking back, Michael’s guiding and fly shop days revealed a number of ideological connections between the art world and the outdoor experience business. “We're a customer service driven business,” he stresses, “and I want clients to enjoy the experience. Sure, I want them to feel like they got a good value, but I want them to feel like they were treated really well. These investments are luxuries, not necessities — just like booking an expensive fishing or hunting trip. People can buy what they want from whomever they want. We want them to buy from us because they enjoy the experience and the relationship, and I'm happy to say a substantial base of our business is repeat collectors who I know very well, and get to hunt and fish with regularly. That’s what I’m truly proud of.”

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John Swan's "The guide"

Michael also appreciates the significant influence that guides and outfitters have on outdoor culture, and believes that the best sporting artists have the utmost respect for the guiding community. “You can go back to Winslow Homer's famous images of guides in the Adirondacks, or look to contemporaries like Eldridge Hardie who was recently commissioned to portray an Atlantic salmon lodge’s entire guide staff — just to pay homage to their craft. I happen to know Eldridge took that task very seriously and had known some of those guides for decades. I think a big part of that respect stems from the fact that those are the guys who will tell you right from wrong.” Indeed, if authenticity is a crucial characteristic of exceptional sporting art, who better to inform the benchmarks than guides who live it every day? Michael recounts one fascinating story about Carl Rungius, one of the most valuable sporting artists of the late 1920s through 1950s. “He was mainly a painter who executed a single sculpture — a bighorn sheep cast in bronze. His personal sheep guide actually saw it after Rungius had already cast a couple versions. The guide found flaw in the anatomy of the original castings, and even though his sculptures were already in production, Rungius went back and fixed the original mold. He knew that the guide knew much more about the anatomy of the sheep than he ever could, but what’s cool is the market also recognizes his commitment to accuracy. Later versions with increased accuracy have sold at up to 3 times the valuation of the originals.” Great artists and art-lovers know that guides have always played an integral role in dictating the narrative of sporting art and culture, because nothing can teach expertise like routinely and completely immersing oneself in the field season after season. Undoubtedly, a younger generation of guides and artists are already sculpting the next chapter of sporting art’s history, and Michael is excited to showcase that work too. Only time will tell what these depictions reveal of our ever-changing relationships with fish and game.


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